The last lesson: Coronado students remember favorite teacher - Tucson Local Media: Import

The last lesson: Coronado students remember favorite teacher

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Posted: Tuesday, November 4, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Ernie Lang was the kind of teacher who hid fake spiders in the corners of his classroom just to see his students jump.

He wasn't above holding a Monopoly tournament on an early-out day, if his students deserved a reward. And once, on a school spirit day, he showed up at school dressed like a woman.

Lang made life fun. Even when he was dying of cancer. Especially when he was dying of cancer.

So when faculty and students at Coronado K-8 School lost a favorite teacher to inoperable cancer of the esophagus on the evening of Oct. 20, they kept the lesson he taught them about living.

"Sometimes teachers feel like 'I'm the teacher and students need to look up to me,' instead of just being silly with them," said Viki Dillahunty, a seventh-grade teacher at Coronado K-8 School. "He wasn't afraid to be silly with them."

Lang wanted to keep teaching as long as he could keep himself out of a hospital bed.

That's what his first conversation last summer with the school's new principal, Monica Nelson, was about. He mentioned the cancer. He said he felt good. He said he wanted to keep showing up at school as long as she thought he was doing his job.

"He said, 'I'd like to keep teaching because the kids give me such joy,'" Nelson said.

Lang was a second-career teacher, retired from an executive job involving transportation of Sears goods. He moved to Tucson four years ago with his wife, Doreen. His three daughters and four grandchildren live in Chicago and Cincinnatti..

He said he'd always wanted to be a teacher, but had to make money first.

Lang began teaching a physical education class at Coronado K-8 School during the 2000-01 year as a permanent substitute. The next year, he became a full-fledged teacher.

He didn't intend to let a terrible diagnosis dampen that joy - not for himself, not for his students.

So when Nelson asked Lang what she should tell people at the school about his diagnosis, he told her not to make a big announcement. He wasn't keeping anything secret, but he didn't want the students to know.

That's why, long before chemotherapy had a chance to alter his appearance, he altered it himself.

"He said, 'So the kids won't worry, I'm going to shave my head and be stylish like Mr. Subiti,'" Nelson said.

George Subiti was another second-career teacher at the school who once had overseen transportation at a big company.

Sometimes the two chatted about teaching math. Sometimes they talked about trucks. Sometimes, baldness.

"Make sure you put on lots of sunscreen," Subiti told Lang. "I didn't, and I suffered the effects."

The chemotherapy didn't do much to reduce Lang's cancer, but neither did it reduce the teacher's sparkle - "Santa Claus eyes," one teacher called it.

"The only way I could tell when he was not feeling great was maybe he lost a little color in his face," said Cathy Sullivan, a fellow teacher and close friend. "But never the smile. That was always there."

When people asked Lang how he was feeling, he answered honestly, but with brevity.

"It was like a weather report," Subiti said. "Good day, bad day, that's it. Who cares. Move on."

It was Lang's attention to more pressing matters-to his students- that compelled eighth-grader Kristina Leonard to write a poem for her teacher after he was gone.

"I was sitting in my room and thinking about him," Leonard said. "I didn't get to say goodbye."

She remembered her class's Monopoly day - the event the students earned by being good. She remembered her teacher asking about her future. Did she plan to finish high school? College? Did she want children? A career?

"I got to talk to him personally," Leonard said. "I got to talk to him about what I wanted to do."

Chemotherapy wasn't helping

the teacher get well, so radiation treatments

followed.

Some days, Lang's face color was a bit off. Some days, he limped. Some days, he looked tired.

"You were on my mind this weekend," his fellow teacher Dillahunty said one day.

"Why?" he said. "You should have been having fun."

Lang's lunches changed, too.

Known among the faculty for being a stylish eater - "not just a sandwich, but an entrée," teacher Frank Vaccaro remembered - Lang began nurturing a taste for soup and pudding.

Then he switched to liquids.

That's when teacher Kay Lewis decided to throw a Friday morning smoothie party for the faculty. Someone equipped her with a tip jar, and Lang contributed $2.

"He was the only one who tipped me," Lewis said.

In late September, Lang went to the hospital. He had pneumonia. He also had a message for his students.

"He wants you to know he's thinking about you, and he wants you to think good thoughts about him," Nelson explained. "He wants you to keep doing your work. He wants you to know he's coming back."

That didn't stop a few kids from raising their hands and asking their principal whether their teacher was dying.

"We're not at that point," Nelson told them.

Lang did go back to his class as he promised, but only for a short time.

"This is the first day I feel like the disease has me," Dillahunty remembered him confiding the Monday before he left the school for good.

On Oct. 2, he was back in the hospital.

Lang's students and admirers did what they could do - they wrote messages to him on a butcher-paper banner.

"Thinking good thoughts," many of them wrote, remembering his request.

The banner hung in Lang's hospital room. Then, when the teacher accepted hospice care and went back to his home on Lantern Lane, the banner hung in his bedroom.

The last time Nelson saw the teacher in the hospital, during the school's fall intercession, she knew he wasn't returning to school. Physically, he was not the same man who had stood up and taught only a week before.

That didn't stop him, though, from thinking about his students.

One day, Nelson caught him sitting by his swimming pool. She'd called him to say "hi."

He told her about the lovely weather at his home, and about his view of the mountains. Then he got down to business.

"So what can I do for you?" he asked. "Do you need me to do any lesson plans?"

No.

Nelson didn't intend to cry last week when she went from class to class, telling students at Coronado K-8 school that their beloved teacher had died. She intended to focus on good thoughts, as Lang loved to do.

But she did cry.

"It's OK, we are going to get through this," Lang had told Sullivan, his fellow teacher and friend, the first time he talked to her about the cancer.

"That was Ernie," Sullivan said. "It was never about Ernie. He could see the panic in your eye and it would be 'It's OK.'"

As for Lang's students, they wiped away their share of tears.

After months in their sick teacher's care, though, they knew a thing or two about where to find joy when life is sad.

Perhaps that's why they trickled into Ms. Sullivan's classroom that day to say "hi." That's what Sullivan believes.

They knew she cared about their teacher. They probably knew she needed a hug.

"That's what he instilled in them," Sullivan said. "They were sad, but they wanted to check on me, too."

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